Jermaine Wright, 41, was sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of Phillip Seifert, a liquor store clerk. However, more than 20 years later, Delaware Supreme Court justices have ruled that prosecutors withheld critical and exculpatory information, violating due process rights.

The suppression of such information “creates a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different if the exculpatory and impeachment evidence had been disclosed,” wrote Justice Henry Ridgely in the decision, “Accordingly, we must reverse Wright’s conviction and death sentence and remand for a new trial.”

In the evening of January 14, 1991, Seifert was fatally shot while working at the Hi-Way Inn near Wilmington, Delaware. A co-worker and a customer witnessed two men enter and leave around the time they found Seifert slumped over the counter. Wright was arrested and interrogated based upon an anonymous tip implicating him.  Four of Wright’s friends testified that he spent the night with them and eyewitnesses could not positively identify him. A jury still convicted the then 18-year-old of first-degree murder, first-degree robbery, and weapons charges. The conviction was largely based upon a videotaped confession and the testimony of surprise witnesses, including an inmate who said Wright confessed to him.  This isn’t the first time a court thought Seifert wasn’t given a fair trial.  In 2012, the Delaware Superior Court vacated Wright’s conviction because it had “no confidence in the outcome of the trial.”

The Superior Court found that prosecutors failed to disclose information about a similar attempted robbery less than an hour before the Hi-Way Inn robbery and murder, a similar weapon was used in both, and similar descriptions were given by eyewitnesses.  Unbeknownst to the defense, Wright had been ruled out of the first robbery. It was also discovered that Wright was not read his Miranda rights at the time of his arrest.

The Supreme Court reversed the ruling and reinstated Wright’s conviction on the grounds that information of a similar crime would not have affected the outcome when weighed against Wright’s confession.

After that ruling, Wright’s attorneys argued that prosecutors withheld even more critical information than that. Particularly that the surprise witness who testified Wright confessed to him had a history of incentivized testimony with prosecutors. Gerald Samuels, a jailhouse informant, entered into a plea bargain just six months before testifying that Wright confessed to him, in which he agreed to testify against his co-defendant in exchange for a reduced sentence. This information would have been helpful to a jury weighing a witness’ credibility. They also suggested that another trial witness might have been the actual murderer.  The defense sought to show that Kevin Jamison and Norman Curtis were the actual perpetrators of the crime. But, when Wright’s attorneys asked Jamison if he knew Curtis well and frequently saw him he answered, “now and then”, but “not often.” Curtis and Jamison are cousins. However, the prosecution knew or should have known and never disclosed to the defense that both men were charged with a robbery just a month before Wright’s trial and Jamison was arrested for another robbery just two days after testifying in Wright’s trial.

“Both pieces of information about Jamison—the robbery charge with co-defendant Curtis and the delay in making the arrest—would have provided exculpatory and impeaching evidence for Wright,” the court opined.

Attorneys for Wright argued that the main evidence against Wright was his videotaped confession, but he was severely sleep deprived, young, and under the influence of drugs at the time.

This appeal caused the Delaware Supreme Court to change its mind, now finding that the “cumulative” weight of the suppression and additional information was enough to demand a new trial.

The new ruling stated that “a plausible argument could be made that the unsuccessful perpetrators of the…attempted robbery were the same individuals involved in the Hi-Way Inn robbery shortly thereafter…Such evidence, if presented at trial, would have been exculpatory.”

Herbert Mondros, one of Wright’s attorneys, wrote in a statement: “As the Court found, not a shred of forensic or eyewitness evidence ties Mr. Wright to the crime, and, in violation of Mr. Wright’s constitutional rights, evidence was illegally suppressed in the case…[T]he only evidence against Mr. Wright was a false confession, a confession that was ‘inaccurate,’ and squarely contradicted by the facts of the case.”

“Wright is not entitled to a perfect trial, but he is entitled to a fair one where material exculpatory and impeachment evidence is disclosed and not suppressed,” wrote Justice Ridgely.

The State presented no “murder weapon, shell casings, the getaway car, or eyewitness to identify Wright.”

A date for retrial has not yet been set.

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Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Wobbly Warrior's Blog and commented:
    ” … the surprise witness who testified Wright confessed to him had a history of incentivized testimony with prosecutors.” Put your money on the other cases the ‘surprise witness’ testified in NOT getting a second look, even for life without possibility of parole and death sentences.

    Like

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